By: Lucinda Dirven
With threats to the antiquities of Syria and Iraq growing daily, so too does the imperative to document fast disappearing sites.
But in January 2015 what historians and archaeologists had feared since IS took possession of Mosul finally happened; Muslim extremists smashed ancient sculptures in Mosul Museum, after the National Museum in Baghdad the most important museum in the country. Among the causalities were many statues from Hatra, a pre-Islamic city located about 80 kilometers southwest of modern Mosul, that are reckoned to be prime examples of Parthian art. About half of the sculptures from this site were kept in the Mosul Museum. It was the especially large pieces that fell victim to the iconoclasts; the smaller ones were removed months ago and are hopefully hidden somewhere safe.
The combination of spectacular architectural remains, about 300 sculptures, over 500 Aramaic inscriptions, and numerous graffiti and small finds dating from the fairly short period between 100-240 CE, provide a truly exceptional insight in daily life in a Parthian city in northern Mesopotamia during the first three centuries of the Common Era. The Parthian period is a fairly unknown era in the history of Mesopotamia and material from Hatra provides unique possibilities for a better understanding of Parthian society, culture, art and religion. Culturally, Hatra is closest to other famous cities in the Syrian-Mesopotamian desert, such as Palmyra, Edessa and Dura-Europos. But whereas these were at some point in their history incorporated in the Roman Empire, Hatrene rulers were allies of the Parthian king of kings until the Sasanians replaced the Arsacid rulers in the East.
The site was investigated for the most part by Iraqi archaeologists who started working at Hatra in the fifties of the last century. Over the past seventy years, most of the major buildings were extensively restored, thereby returning some of the city’s former glory. Had it not been for the insecure political situation in the region, Hatra would certainly have developed into a major tourist attraction. Just before the outbreak of the war in 2003, the Iraqi antiquity service moved many sculptures that had until then been stored at Hatra to the storerooms of the National Museum in Baghdad and the Museum of Mosul. The looting of museums that followed the occupation of Baghdad and Mosul by the American and English troops in the spring of 2003 caused some of the statues to be damaged or destroyed, but hardly any artefacts from Hatra were stolen. The city and its finds survived the war and the unstable situation that followed miraculously well. But unfortunately, Hatra’s good luck has come to an end now.
Hatra owed its short but splendid existence to its intermediate position between Rome and Parthia, the two super-powers in the west and the east that were at war with each other. It was of great strategic importance to both sides, as is clear from the keen interest that both the Romans and Parthians (and later the Sasanians) took in the city. The strategic importance of the city relates to the close relationship between the people who had settled in the city and the people in its territory who adhered to a nomadic way of life. Inscriptions refer to Hatrene rulers as “king of Arab”, which suggests that Hatra’s territory was known as “Arab”, and that the nomadic population were called “Arabs”. The Hatrene rulers controlled the nomads that roamed the city’s territory, and, through them, the entire region. Thus, in order to control the region, the Parthian kings simply allied themselves with the Hatrene rulers.
The predominantly religious character of finds from Hatra is striking and suggests the city functioned as the religious and political centre of the population of the eastern Jazirah; a kind of pre-Islamic Mecca. The central role of religion in Hatra is obvious from the huge walled enclosure at the very centre of the almost circular city that in turn is surrounded by impressive fortifications. The central temenos measures 437 by 322 meters; the city as a whole is almost two kilometres in diameter and comprises about 310 ha. The temenos is divided by a wall into an enormous forecourt and a smaller court where the main buildings are situated. At the back of the small court is a huge building with a facade that is 110 metres long. It consists of a number of vaulted rooms that are between 9 and 12 metres high, known as iwans. When this typical Parthian building was first published by Walter Andrae at the beginning of the last century, it was thought to be a palace. Inscriptions that have come to light during subsequent excavations prove unequivocally that the complex was in fact the home of Hatra’s most important gods: Maren, ‘our Lord’, and Barmaren, ‘the son of our Lord’. Maren is another name for Shamash, the sun god mentioned on local Hatrene coins.
The domestic area of the city developed around its religious centre. Like the actual temenos walls, the impressive fortification walls around the city date to the first half of the second century. Before this wall was built, the temenos was surrounded by an older wall that comprised about half of the later surface area. The majority of the fourteen small shrines that have been found so far are located inside the old walls, which shows that these shrines were an integral part of Hatra’s religious life from the beginning. A great many of the small shrines centre on the cult of a Herakles-figure, who was worshipped in Hatra under the name of Nergal, the ancient Mesopotamian god of the netherworld. In addition, deities such as Baalshamin, Atargatis, Nabu and Nanaia received a cult here. The deities worshipped in the temenos (the triad Maren, Marten, Barmaren, the goddess Allat and several other deities) also occur in inscriptions and representations from the small shrines.
Hatra is particularly rich in sculpture. Noteworthy is the rich architectural decoration, in particular of the temples in the great temenos. Some of these elements were obviously inspired by Graeco-Roman examples, but they are here used in a non-Roman way and combined with other decorative elements of different origins. The decoration of the arches of the great iwans, for example, was probably inspired by Roman examples, but whereas Roman arches only have figures in the central keystone, in Hatra the whole arch is decorated with busts or figures of animals, humans and gods. In addition to the rich architectural decoration of the temples, the city yielded about 300 freestanding sculptures and reliefs. About half of these represent one or several deities and thus have an overtly religious character. The other half consists of slightly bigger than life-size statues of Hatrene kings and other prominent inhabitants of Hatra. They too were predominantly found inside the sanctuaries, suggesting that they are at least partly religious in function. The iconography of several Hatrene gods is of Graeco-Roman origin, whereas others are local creations that display iconographic motifs that derive from millennia old Mesopotamian traditions. The life-size statues hardly display Roman influence and are predominantly oriental in style, clothing and jewelry.
The study of Hatra’s history, art and culture is still at its infancy and the present short article can do no justice to the variety and complexity that mirrors the city’s intermediate position between east and west. Unfortunately we shall have to rely on photographs now in studying some of the statues. We must hope that the remainder of the statues and the site itself manage to escape IS senseless fury against its own past.
For Further Reading
Assessing the Damage at the Mosul Museum, Part 2: The Sculptures from Hatra
Islamic State militants raze Iraq’s ancient Hatra city: government
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